Two years of refugee struggle against migration control

Demonstration on maart 23rd, 2013, in Amsterdam. (Photo: Jan Kees Helms)
Demonstration on maart 23rd, 2013, in Amsterdam. (Photo: Jan Kees Helms)
In the summer of 2011 a courageous battle of homeless refugees deprived of their rights started which has continued at full power to this date. It is time to assess the results of what went before and the course of this battle, as seen through the eyes of the Doorbraak activists who have been involved.

The original text in Dutch
(july 11th, 2013)

Translated into English by Jet

Until two years ago the battle for survival of the refugees seemed to increasingly move out of the sight of the rest of society. Less and less people seemed to concern themselves with their miserable circumstances, consciously caused by politicians over the years through their policies for migration control. The isolation of refugees had increased greatly over the years, both as a result of the increasingly repressive politics of exclusion and of the oppressive social climate. Especially Muslims and the so-called “allochtonen” (Dutch term used mainly for people with Turkish and Moroccan origins) in general were more and more made into scapegoats. The support of and solidarity with illegals had been made suspect and had greatly deteriorated. Although refugees continued to ask for help from support groups, these often had very little to offer to them. These groups focussed mainly on individual support and very little on collective action, and this considerably increased the feeling that whatever effort would be meaningless. A large number of the bigger organisations such as VluchtelingenWerk and INLIA had even started to participate in the government projects for ‘voluntary return’ to help deport illegals. These kinds of projects became more and more a central part of their activities and focal areas. They had also started to limit their fight for residency permits to those refugees whose pleas were be expected to be classified sufficiently ‘inhumane’ to receive consideration. The more brutal the system became, the weaker the obedient requests of these organisations to the policymakers were.

The IND (the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service) had been refusing refugees faster every year and had made it very difficult for them to submit a second request for a residency permit that might be successful. The process of throwing refugees from the asylumseekers centres out into the streets, of excluding, chasing, apprehending and imprisoning them, and subsequently kicking them back into the streets, had already been going on for years. This was nothing new for us, the Doorbraak activists who since the early nineties had gained experience with the support for illegals, both individually as well as collectively. We had seen the culture and infrastructure of protest that resulted in the temporary amnesty regulation of 2007, resulting in a residency permit for almost thirty thousand refugees, wither and disappear in a few years’ time. Although at the time the struggle was broadly supported by humanitarian and religious organisations, it was insufficiently determined by the refugees themselves. They certainly did not have the lead. After the establishment of the temporary amnesty regulation the protests had quietly died out and the rather limited parliamentary-progressive criticism of the migration control policy became silent. Only the small groups on the radical left, such as Doorbraak, tried to build up resistance that went beyond the, sometimes ritualistic, comments on the most recent threat of deteriorating policies that was to be heard occasionally in the parliamentary lobbying circus.

Temporary accommodation

This breakdown was closely linked to the conditions that shaped the temporary amnesty regulation, such as the notorious administrative agreement. This governmental measure obliged the municipalities to close down their local temporary shelters for refugees in the long term. The government officials and their high-level ministerial civil servants believed that the proliferation of temporary shelters, often initiated in response to local protest and under pressure of churches and lobby groups, had gotten out of hand. They themselves wanted to again get control of the refugee shelters. In exchange for the broadly supported request to grant residency permits to all refugees who had applied for asylum before April 1 2001, the policy makers demanded that the municipalities would keep away from what they considered a task of the national government. With the dismantling of the local emergency accommodation they took away the autonomy of the municipalities to act where the national government failed to take action. In this way the government officials hoped to suppress the protests and have these bleed to death.

The temporary asylum regulation was accompanied by a disgusting rhetoric of ‘once and never again’. All politicians gave the impression that such an asylum regulation was a disaster. After the asylum had been taken through the parliamentarian circus the policy makers made it extremely clear that this was the end. There should never again be any discussion about whatever kind of asylum for anyone without a residence permit. Refugees and especially those who defended their rights should realise that from now on the borders were closed. In this manner the migration control was sealed off and locked and the protesters against it were left in the dark. The social-democratic, humanitarian and religious defenders of temporary asylum, who basically were law-abiding citizens, closed the ranks of the middleclass from which the protests had for the main part been generated. They were happy that after so many years of struggle finally a solution for a larger group of refugees had arrived. Many felt relieved and stopped their support, lobby and protest actions. The infrastructure of protest actions, among which the ‘Van Harte Pardon’ groups comprised of critical and solidary refugee supporters from churches and progressive groups, quickly collapsed. The small-scale radical left opposition against the policies that did continue became even more isolated than before.

After that the social consensus on the broader aspects of the policy against refugees and migrants with the motto ‘strict but just’ become so dominant that Doorbraak activists sometimes lost their courage. How, and with whom, would it ever be possible to bring down the wall of social and governmental apartheid? Where and when could sufficient sand be put between the wheels of the deportation machine in order to bring to a halt the destructive work of the exclusion, detention and deportation by the State? A broad movement against the policy with sufficient support from the society as well as a determined principled vision seemed further away than ever.


And then all of a sudden there was the protest of the refugees themselves, in the summer of 2011. Out of nowhere, or at least that was how it seemed to us Doorbraak activists. Their fight was a result of the misery they experienced from the exclusion that was increasingly enforced. Homeless centres in the big cities had adopted a policy of refusing illegals a place to sleep. The rejected refugees were left to live on the streets in dangerous and unhealthy circumstances even more than before. But now that the possibility of the sleep centres had also been taken away from them, the refugees had started their protest actions, first in Utrecht. They started their own organisation called Vluchtelingen op Straat (VOS) (= Refugees on the streets). On September 27 2011 they organised a manifestation in the centre of The Hague. The Doorbraak activists who participated were enthusiastic but also a bit surprised. Hundreds of refugees, especially from Somalia but also from other countries, chanted slogans, waved banners, distributed leaflets and gave speeches on the podium. For the first time in years, or so it seemed to the Doorbraak activists, hundreds and hundreds of refugees without papers had taken to the street. This was not only special because they ran the risk of being arrested, but also because they had organised themselves, complaining against the politics of starvation and formulating sharp demands to the politicians.

During the manifestation there were the reprehensibly naïve speeches of some of the parliamentarians who felt that ‘the politicians in The Hague’ were not sufficiently informed about the miserable circumstances in which the refugees were living. As if the policy of recent years had not been an approach targeted to destroy illegals and force them to leave the Netherlands in that way. But this kind of talk was nothing compared to the power of how the refugees stood up for themselves on the podium. They knew better, because they had personally experienced the politics of starvations. They were not going to have the wool pulled over their eyes. On this afternoon the dream world of well-meaning progressives clashed with the merciless reality at the very bottom of society. Such clashes were to repeat themselves later on, as the battle of the refugees started to take shape and became more intense.

The demonstration was a memorable experience for the Doorbraak activists. We talked in depth with a large number of the protesting refugees. We made interviews for our newspaper and website, and stayed in contact afterwards with the spokespersons of their self-organisation. We gained a lot of knowledge about their circumstances, their background and their struggle. At the time we did not suspect where their bottom-up protest would lead to, but we did feel that things were changing. In the following months our political intuition was confirmed: the time had come that refugees were not just being talked about, but started to take action themselves. They let their own voice be heard, with their own desires, wishes and demands. Refugees no longer had to play the part of sad cases that were pitied in the media shows of the middleclass, because now they had taken up the direction of their own struggle and lives with their own means and possibilities, and with all their hope and despair they had launched themselves into public opinion. They were no longer forced to meekly observe the wheeling and dealing against their own interests by all sorts of sluggish and compromise-seeking organisations who right from the start were willingly making concessions in order to please the policy makers, who were never going to change their position as long as these biased people just kept begging for one ounce less of injustice. The refugees refused to be made into objects any longer, pawns to be moved around by others at will, because they now had become subjects in the battle, demanding in a clear voice respect and a dignified existence. ‘We are here and we’re here to stay’ was their self-assured and assertive motto.


Looking back the manifestation turned out to be the start of the revolt of the refugees. We of course were aware that the refugees had been fighting their daily struggle for survival, over years and even decades. Although their fight to the death did not start on that day, it did turn into a collective and public battle. Doorbraak always wanted to fight the battle against the policy of migration control together with the refugees and migrants. We did not want to conduct actions and campaigns without being in contact with, and finding collaboration with the people who suffered from the policies. We always hoped to find self-organisations that wanted and were able to stick out their neck and put the foundations of the policy to the question. But many illegals were trying hard to survive by themselves, to the extent that they were not able to join others to get into a position to confront the authorities. They were tired, hungry, exhausted, and dejected. They often did not have the energy, motivation and inspiration to be involved in political activism. This was completely understandable, but at the same time regretful. But now it seemed as if a new generation of rejected refugees had risen up, the refugees who were not able to make use of the temporary asylum regulation, those who applied for asylum after April 1 2001 and subsequently were rejected and ended up on the streets. A new generation that could not, and did not want to, be deported; a generation desperate for freedom and dignity but confined in the prison called the Netherlands.

It soon became clear that this was not a one-off refugee protest. At the end of November 2011 18 Somali refugees were turned out into the street from the refugee centre in Ter Apel. They then demonstratively built a tent camp in front of the refugee centre, reminiscent of the start of the Occupy movement. The refugees demanded access to accommodation, food, income, in other words: to a dignified existence. At the time Doorbraak hardly had any members in the North, and unfortunately it was not possible for us to support the action in any substantial way. But we made it public, gave publicity to the tent camp protest, and we continued to do so after that. This first protest camp that at the time did not have sufficient support was soon cleared. The refugees fell into the cunning trap of the authorities and were arrested. But they turned out to be well organised and did not accept any pushing around. They organised a protest in Utrecht to denounce the repression by the State. The VOS activists showed that they were not afraid to confront the State. We greatly admired their courage and perseverance.


A new tent camp was built at the end of December, again in Ter Apel. The refugees’ struggle for survival continued and so did their tent camps. It was obvious that this was not over yet for the IND and the rest of the State system. On the contrary, we became gradually convinced that the tent camp struggle would be around for a long time. We were inspired by the refugees’ assertiveness that caused a sensation in Ter Apel and surroundings and that worried the policy makers in The Hague. A member of Doorbraak who was living somewhat in the vicinity visited the camp and brought some supplies to the refugees who were numb with cold. This time the protest did not lead to arrests but to an offer by the authorities. The refugees were given accommodation on a temporary basis. A few months later in May 2012 even their opponents could no longer deny the refugees’ revolt. Some 65 Iraqi refugees started a tent camp, again on the field in front of the refugee centre in Ter Apel. The protest became bigger, more alarming and more hopeful and also received much more support. We were happy to see that not only the Somalis had organised themselves, but also the Iraqis. The more nationalities and self-organisations became involved in the tent camp protest, the better.

We hoped that the pressure on the policies would increase because of the protests. We knew that radical left activists by themselves had little influence. Maybe the refugees themselves, together with as many supporters as possible, would be able to force the policy makers into the defensive and in the end force them to change their politics of starvation. The tent camp protests appealed to many activists, such as anarchists and Occupy-participants, because the struggle of the refugees coincided with their vision of ‘no borders’ and ‘no one is illegal’, and because the protest actions were organised bottom-up, in an open, basis-democratic manner. The protest also appealed to other solidary people who had objections against the policies and were now able to do something concrete. The refugees caused a revival of activism and solidarity in this way. The camp quickly grew to 200 refugees of various nationalities and at its peak even had more than 350 inhabitants. Through fake negotiations without any substance the policy makers in The Hague tried to bring the protests to a standstill. But the representatives of the refugees were not dismissed that easily. Their demands for accommodation and residency permits were on the table and they would not be deterred. Their attitude sent out a message: this is a refugee revolt that you had better take seriously.

The support to the camp grew to unknown proportions. Not only supporters and action groups and other interest groups became involved but also more and more individuals from all parts of society, white and black, men and women, came to contribute. Doorbraak made an appeal to bring goods and donate money. We asked ourselves what else we could do, and how much time and capacity we could make available. Would it be realistic to go for more involvement in view of the large distance between Ter Apel and the area where the major part of the Doorbraak members lived? Just when we were ready to put our solidarity into action, the authorities knocked down the camp completely. Like many others we were outraged at this. But this was not the end of the struggle. That summer the refugees continued with a tent camp in front of the entrance of the IND offices in Den Bosch, and with protests in Arnhem, Zwolle, Grave and Heerlen. A group of Doorbraak activists visited the protest in Den Bosch, bringing supplies and donating money for the rented toilets. The protests appeared to spread across the entire country. As if someone put a match to some dry wood, causing a fire to flare up that would be difficult to put out.


After another tent camp in Ter Apel and after the umpteenth evacuation and a camp at the municipality in Sellingen, close to Ter Apel, there came a development that greatly impacted the Doorbraak contribution to the struggle: the tent camps spread from the North and East to the West. In September the Iraqi refugees started a tent camp near The Hague Central Station. They wanted to get as close as possible to the power, where the government, the parliament and the ministries ruled their lives, and where the starvation policies were created and the deportation machine was kept going. The Iraqis came into contact with activists of the Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), and together with other supporters they built an action camp in spite of the opposition from the municipality.

This camp offered Doorbraak more possibilities for support because a large number of our active members live in the South-Holland province, especially Leiden. We needed to make an honest estimation to what extent we could take on co-responsibility for the infrastructure of the camp. We realised that we might be sucked into this entirely if we were to get fully involved into the entire organisation and arrangements of the action camp. Would we be able to do this? Would we be willing to do this in view of our other activities, among which the time-consuming campaign against forced labour that had gained momentum, especially in Leiden. We agreed that two Doorbraak activists would make working with the action camp their main priority. They would be more in the frontline, to make contact with the refugees and to help building the camp. In the background other Doorbraak activists would be involved, especially by writing articles about the developments in and around the camp and to give feedback to the two Doorbraak members in the frontline. In addition Doorbraak again initiated an appeal to bring goods and supplies, and to donate money, as we ourselves had been doing regularly.

Middle class

We saw our role in raising social awareness about the struggle, to create goodwill, and to stimulate solidarity with the refugees. This struggle should not be happening on the isolated and anonymous fringes of society, but should be a widespread social issue. For that reason we started a ‘declaration of support’ action. By sending us their digital support declaration organisations and individuals were able to state their solidarity with the struggle of the refugees in the tent camp in The Hague. In the meantime the camp had been named ‘Right to existence’ and had started a website and Facebook page.

Shortly after The Hague another tent camp was started in Amsterdam. This soon received considerable publicity and attention and this resulted in more support. The refugees in The Hague continuously organised protests for example in the parliament and at the IND offices. The tent camp protests became a concept, a hot item. The publicity increased, also in the mainstream media, and many felt involved. But the increased publicity also had a downside. If a bottom-up struggle poses a big enough threat, then sooner or later the powers of the middle classes are released, aiming to encapsulate the struggle, to weaken and bend it. Historically speaking that has always been the role of the social democracy: serving the interests of state and capital by keeping the workers’ movement under control and by integrating the workers as much as possible into capitalism. In the bottom-up struggle of the refugees there is a similar process where not only social democrats but also people from humanitarian and Christian groups cannot wait to start interfering. This cannot be avoided. In fact, you could say that if such a thing does not happen in case of a bottom-up struggle, then the struggle is probably not strong and threatening enough. Such a struggle is always at risk of being hijacked by the well-to-do members of the middle class, claiming the lead or the role of spokesperson of the action or campaign. Wearing two hats they snuggle up between the refugees and the public servants. Often the role they play remains vague and non-transparent. Now they speak wearing one hat, and later with the other. The power of the struggle depends to a considerable extent on the refugees’ ability to give these middle classes the ‘disadvantage of the doubt’ and to not get pushed from the path they have chosen. Of course they may use the middle classes as an instrument but there will always be risks involved. It is one of the most difficult issues in a struggle: who is sufficiently trustworthy.

Area of tension

Unfortunately a few months later both tent camps were evacuated in an appalling way. But the refugees and their supporters did not yield. They moved into churches that they occupied as squats for that purpose. In line with the atmosphere of the struggle these churches were not made available to them: they had to be occupied. If after many ifs and buts, the refugees received an offer from the upper class of society, this invariably proved to be a useless offer on the disgusting condition of ‘voluntary return’ to their countries of origin. They could expect nothing from that side. So they had to rely on their own strength and insight. And they should not give away the control of their own struggle. This is easier said than done because the more individuals and organisations are involved in the refugee struggle, the more risk there is for the struggle to be watered down or run aground. But without an opportunity to gain more support the refugees will not be able to win the battle. This is the area of tension: more interference with the struggle can offer both a risk and a challenge.

This tension definitely became visible prior to the national demonstration on March 23 in Amsterdam, where some two thousand people participated. During this protest a considerable number of politicians were offered a platform to have their say about the harsh policy that had been created by their own parties. They failed to address the critical issues and clearly had nothing to offer to the refugees. The radical-left had seen this coming all along. But for Doorbraak this does not mean that refugees and their supporters should remain inactive where parliamentary politics are concerned. The refugees have little choice. They need to survive, they need food and a roof over their heads, and they long for a dignified existence. Not as an abstract concept but out of a concrete need. Not in a few years’ time but here and now. Their supporters are hardly able to offer this. That is why they seek out the parliamentary politics. Not because they as homeless refugees and deprived of their rights, enjoy having a cup of tea and chat with parliamentarians, and being sent back to the streets afterwards. The reason is that it is necessary, because opportunities need to be created, and because it clearly cannot be done in any other way, at least not now. A solution must be found, no matter where or how.

The larger and established organisations have been overtaken by the refugee struggle of the past two years. They stood by watching and for a long time remained unengaged until there came an opportunity to score: when they were able to bring in their own agenda and start playing their double-hatted game. They had already long ago surrendered themselves to the foundations of the policy and only continued to criticise some details. VluchtelingenWerk, INLIA, Kerk In Actie, Amnesty International – not one of these NGOs who are forever harping on about human rights, wanted to publicly take a firm stand in support of the refugees’ demands. And they were certainly not there in the tent camps day and night or in the occupied churches to do an enormous amount of work, to prepare actions and to bravely defy the arrogance of power, as was done by the AFA-activists, the squatters, other lefties, the solidary local residents, and all those who chose to side with the refugees and continued to take their side. The NGOs were confronted with a sudden surge of fundamental criticism about the policies, criticism that was literally out there, bold, blunt and persistent, criticism that could no longer be ignored or marginalised. They tried to join the struggle, sometimes out of a kind of engagement but more often to discourage the refugees and to urge them to give up the struggle and return ‘voluntarily’. The NGOs, politicians and other big shots are not good at getting close, chumming up with refugees. The divide between the starving bottom layer and well-fed top of society is simply too big. The confrontation is too fierce between on the one hand the political parties and interest groups who contribute to migration control, and on the other hand the refugees who are the victims of this.

Hunger strike

The spirit of the bottom-up struggle that in the meantime has permeated the hearts and minds of the refugees and their supporters, that fighting spirit with an attitude of persistence, the reliance on personal strength and the principles of self-organisation, basis-democracy, collectivism, autonomy, keeping control of the struggle, remaining alert to who your friends are and who your enemies, and first seeing then believing – all of this has in the meantime also spread to the refugees who are being detained in deportation prisons. Among them are also refugees who have participated in the camp protests. In this way the struggle outside is continued inside, under even worse conditions, with far less means or possibilities, and without the little bit of freedom that the refugees outside of the prison still have. This became visible on May 5, when the No Border Network held a solidarity tour of three detention centres and they were able to make contact with detained refugees who had gone on hunger strike. This hunger strike developed into a collective action in various prisons with at its peak more than hundred refugees participating. A number of them even went on a thirst strike. They used their bodies and lives as the ultimate weapons to force a decent human existence.

Once again the radical-left activists, especially those from the No Border Network, from the working group Deportation Resistance and from Occupy, took the lead in organising solidarity with and support for the refugees in their fight. They had daily telephone contact with them and organised ‘noise demonstrations’ at the detention centres. They also gave publicity to the stories of the detained refugees, stories full of accusations against the prison regime, against the guards who were continuously harassing and maltreating them, and against the systematic torture of refugees who had not had anything to eat or drink for days by putting them in bare and icy segregation cells. The state hoped to stifle the resistance in this manner. But the resilience and the perseverance of the prisoners proved to be almost unbelievable. Inside and outside of the prison the fighting refugees will not be kept down.

The large and established interest groups have not only interfered with the protests outside but also with the hunger and thirst strike inside. Although the detainees have demanded no less than their full freedom, the wealthy middle class once again dons their double hats of supporter and opponent. Instead of calling for the abolishment of all forms of deprivation of liberty that are used by the state against people without the right of residence, they started making a case for a different form of ‘monitoring’ or for shorter periods of detention. But the refugees are not craving to be imprisoned for three months instead of six. They do not want an electronic anklet that enables the state to keep them under surveillance. They reject the ‘restricted freedom locations’, this disguising terminology which refers to another kind of semi-prisons. They do not want to be under state control any longer. They want to determine their own lives. And that is why they are fighting for freedom and human dignity, in this country. Because they are here and they will stay here.

Harry Westerink